Twenty-six year old garment factory worker Pintu Mohanty has been stuck without work and wages in Surat after the lockdown began on March 24. Desperate to get back home to Ganjam district, Odisha, he paid Rs 1,500 to two people who claimed they could buy him a ticket on the Shramik special trains being run for migrant workers.

But no train ticket has materialised – and is unlikely to.

It is not possible to directly purchase tickets on the Shramik trains. Workers are required to register with their home states, which coordinate with host states. Until recently, both states had to make a joint request to the Indian Railways which would arrange a train on the route.

Once a train is scheduled for departure, the workers who have been shortlisted for travel receive a phone call. They are medically screened before being allowed to board the trains. The fares are collected at the station, unless the home state decided to bear the cost of their travel.

The system is complex and opaque, resulting in hundreds of migrant workers showing up at railway stations only to be pushed back by the authorities. In Mumbai, the police conducted a lathicharge on workers gathered outside the Bandra Terminus on Tuesday.

The other fallout is that many workers like Mohanty, unable to navigate the system and desperate to get back home, have ended up getting fleeced by agents.

A black market has sprung up on the back of workers’ misery.

This is inevitable when trains and state-run buses are in short supply, said Anindita Adhikari of the Stranded Workers’ Action Network, an informal collective of researchers and activists who are helping migrant workers get home.

“Given the high level of uncertainty of when work will open, daily wage workers, especially those who have no steady relationship with a contractor or company, feel its better to go home than to stay in the city where prices are higher,” she said.

Instead of helping them get back home with dignity, she said the government had created a system which offered no transparency on the availability of transport, ticket confirmations and wait times.

As a result, workers were losing money on tickets that never transpire.

Desperate for a ticket

On April 29, the Central government announced it would run Shramik Express trains to ferry migrant workers to their home states. The next day, Mohanty filled an online application with the Odisha government using his mobile phone. As confirmation that his application had been registered, he received a text message informing him that he would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine once he reaches the state.

But there was no further communication about when he could expect to travel back.

Growing restless, on May 1, Mohanty decided to join 15 other workers who were paying Rs 750 to a local resident, Dushmant, who claimed he could arrange train tickets for them within three to four days. Mohanty said that Dushmant was a friend’s brother-in-law.

More than two weeks later, there is no sign of the ticket. “I do not know what he has done with my money but whenever I call he says it will be done,” said Mohanty.

When Dushmant failed to deliver, Mohanty turned to Deepu Bhai, who he described as an “elder brother” in the neighbourhood. Deepu Bhai promised Mohanty that he would get him a train ticket in a few days. The garment factory worker paid him Rs 750 on May 8.

This too proved to be futile.

Migrant workers and their families wait to board a train at Mumbai's Lokmanya Tilak Terminus. Credit: PTI

‘No facilities’

Santosh Patra works as an office assistant in a private company in Surat. Like Mohanty, he too paid Rs 750 each to Dushmant and Deepu Bhai. “They said they knew some local politicians,” he explained.

When contacted Dushmant, he denied collecting money from workers and claimed he had not “actively participated” in exercises to enrol migrant workers for Shramik trains. He said he works in a private company and occasionally volunteers with the Odisha Samaj in Surat.

Both Mohanty and Patra accused Dushmant of lying about the ticket fare.

“In the media, it is being said that there are facilities for us, but there are no facilities at all,” said Patra. “None of us knew that we do not have to give money [to the intermediaries]. Even if we knew, we cannot go without paying money.”

Both the workers said they were running low on savings. Mohanty worked in a garment factory earning a salary of Rs 20,000 per month. But his last salary came in March and since then he has not heard from the factory owner about his future payments. Both the workers have been unable to pay their landlord rent of Rs 2,000 each for two months.

Desperate to escape Surat, the workers were willing to take the risk of giving money to agents, as long as they could get home by train. The only other option would be to undertake an arduous and uncertain road journey, walking and hitchhiking on trucks. At least 170 migrant workers have died of exhaustion and accidents on the way.

“If we do not take a risk and pay them [the agents] money, then how will we go home?” asked Mohanty.

‘How long will we wait?’

In Mumbai’s Saki Naka neighbourhood, Mohammad Israr, 30, his wife Shaheen Bano, 28, and their children aged seven and five, have been waiting for a Shramik train ticket for nearly a month.

Israr, a daily wager from Balrampur district in Uttar Pradesh, said he had registered on the Uttar Pradesh website for migrant workers two weeks ago. Around the same time, some men claiming to be from Balrampur contacted him and other workers, offering help for Rs 400.

“They said they would speeden up the process,” he recalled. “They said if I cannot pay then I will not be able to go.”

Several workers in Mumbai have reported similar experiences of being approached by agents who claimed they could help them get berths on a Shramik train faster for payments ranging between Rs 500 to Rs 1,000, The Indian Express reported.

Israr, however, found the offer suspicious and decided not to pay the agents.

Migrant workers in Mumbai wait to board a train to Gorakhpur. Credit: PTI

But he is now wracked with doubt. Two weeks after he registered, he still hasn’t heard back from the Uttar Pradesh government. He has made all preparations to travel: submitting an application at the local police station in Mumbai with his Aadhaar number and address. But his family is stuck till the government accommodates them on a train.

“It should not take them 15 days,” he said. “How long will we wait?”

Israr cannot afford to travel by road. “Those who had money paid Rs 3,500 to travel in a lorry,” he said.

In Haryana, Chandan Sahni shared the same predicament. Originally from Vaishali district in Bihar, Sahni works in an auto-components factory in Gurugram district and lives in Bilaspur village. Two weeks ago, the local sarpanch offered to get him a ticket on the Shramik train for Rs 3,500.

“He told me the ticket would be generated on a computer,” said Sahni.

But the contract worker did not have enough savings to pay the hefty amount. His company is yet to pay him his pending dues, he said.